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When USC plays Stanford, there's often a finishing kick for Trojans

Andre Heidari's winning field goal Saturday sparked memories of Ron Ayala, Chris Limahelu and Sam Tsagalakis, whose kicks beat Stanford decades ago.

November 18, 2013|By Gary Klein
  • USC kicker Andre Heidari celebrates after the Trojans' 20-17 upset win over Stanford at the Coliseum on Saturday.
USC kicker Andre Heidari celebrates after the Trojans' 20-17 upset… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

As USC kicker Andre Heidari trotted onto the field and lined up his dramatic game-winning field goal against Stanford on Saturday, Sam Tsagalakis went back in time.

In 1953, Tsagalakis helped USC defeat Stanford with a late field goal at the peristyle end of the Coliseum. Now, watching on television in his San Marino home, Tsagalakis relived the experience.

"Your mind goes blank and you don't hear anything, you just make the kick," Tsagalakis, 80, said Monday. "When people ask me, 'How far did it go?' I just say, 'It cleared the torch.'"

Heidari's 47-yard kick with 19 seconds left put him in a fraternity that includes Tsagalakis, Ron Ayala and the late Chris Limahelu, whose dramatic kicks beat Stanford 60, 44 and 40 years ago.

Heidari's kick, the difference in a 20-17 USC win, ignited a surge of fans from the stands in the Coliseum along with a rush of nostalgia.

"People were calling me from all over," Tsagalakis said, laughing. "It brought back a lot of happy memories."

Like Heidari, Tsagalakis missed an extra-point attempt early in the game on Nov. 7, 1953. Forrest Twogood, USC's basketball coach, offered some encouraging words at halftime.

"He came up to me and said, 'Sam, don't worry about it. Something good is going to happen to you.'

"I'm like, 'Yeah, yeah.'"

Heidari's kick was set up by an interception by Su'a Cravens with a little more than three minutes left in regulation. A USC interception preceded Tsagalakis' heroics too.

With the score tied, 20-20, and just over a minute left, USC's Ron Miller intercepted a pass by Stanford's Bobby Garrett and returned it 48 yards to the Stanford 20.

One play later, Tsagalakis came on for a 38-yard attempt.

"They called time out," Tsagalakis said of Stanford, which was ranked 11th, six spots ahead of the Trojans. "That was the greatest thing that happened because I got a chance to warm up and think about it."

Tsagalakis split the uprights with 14 seconds left and the Trojans won, 23-20.

"I really kicked the heck out of it," he said. "It was a 38-yarder, but it never came down. It just kept going. It was just a great, great feeling. It's been so many years, but you never forget it."

Ayala, 64, knows the feeling.

In October 1968, he kicked a 34-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter at Stanford to help give USC a 27-24 victory.

Almost exactly a year later at the Coliseum, Stanford had kicked a field goal with a little more than a minute left to take a 24-23 lead.

USC got the ball at its 15, and quarterback Jimmy Jones drove the Trojans into Stanford territory at the tunnel end of the stadium. USC was out of timeouts when Jones completed a pass to Gerry Mullins, who was unable to get out of bounds at the Stanford 17 with 15 seconds left.

Ayala rushed onto the field for a 34-yard field-goal attempt.

"I had changed into my square-toed shoe and we ran out onto the field and found my spot," he recalled. "I never looked up once I had my spot."

Ayala's kick just made it over the crossbar as time expired, giving the Trojans a 26-24 victory that averted an upset — USC was ranked No. 4, Stanford No. 16 — and prompted fans to run onto the field.

"Everyone was jumping up and down, and then the offensive linemen picked me up," Ayala said, laughing. "I was only 5-9, and I didn't know people were coming onto the field.

"I'm seeing a sea of people. That's all I remember."

Ayala, the co-owner of an event security company, was in Mexico on business when Heidari made his kick. He did not find out USC had won until late Saturday night and did not learn the circumstances until the next day.

But his phone and email were full of messages.

"I have people who recognize my name — and it's been 40 years," he said. "People don't forget."

In November 1973, Limahelu came through with a 34-yard field goal with three seconds left as eighth-ranked USC escaped with a 27-26 victory over unranked Stanford.

The 5-foot-5, 135-pound kicker capped a drive that was directed by junior quarterback Pat Haden — now USC's athletic director — with no timeouts remaining.

USC trailed, 26-24, when it got the ball at its 30-yard line with 33 seconds left. Haden completed a 24-yard pass to tight end Jim Obradovich, a short pass to tailback Anthony Davis and a 25-yard strike to Obradovich, who got out of bounds at the 17-yard line.

On came Limahelu, who gave the Trojans the victory with three seconds left.

That kick was among a number of career highlights for Limahelu, who died of prostate cancer at age 59 in 2010. He kicked in two Rose Bowl games and contributed a field goal and PAT in an 18-17 win over Ohio State that gave USC's 1974 team a share of college football's national championship. By the end of his career, he had three of the five longest field goals in school history.

Like Limahelu, Heidari is a junior with more than a full season ahead of him. But regardless of what happens from here on, he'll always have Stanford, as Tsagalakis and Ayala can attest.

"This kid will never forget this moment," Ayala said. "He'll carry it with him for the rest of his life."

gary.klein@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesklein

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